Some things just are, and you know they are just by looking at them, no specialized knowledge is needed. A powerful torqued-up American sports car, the Grand Canyon, Mickey Mouse. We may not all agree on all of the things in such a list, but the Fender Telecaster should be on all of them. If you are looking for a Telecaster for yourself, you are in a good place, and we’ll try to help you sort through the blur and noise and give you what you need to know, so let’s go!
A Brief History
As Leo Fender evolved his radio repair business into building amplifiers he naturally wandered into the instrument end of the pool and began with lap steel electric guitars. Between 1950 and the end of 1951 his small company created, in an order that even he didn’t remember, the Precision Bass, Esquire, and after a couple of do-overs with the name, the Fender Telecaster, a fundamentally unchanged piece of music history that continues making history today.
Beginning life as the Broadcaster in 1950, the ash-bodied maple-necked screwed-together electric guitar was unique in a world of glued-together difficult-to-maintain instruments available to the average guitar player. After some legal wrangling, the Broadcaster name was removed from the guitar leaving only Fender, and the few guitars released that way are called NoCaster to this day. Don Randall, a very early employee of Leo Fender, combined the modern miracle Television with Broadcaster, and in 1951 the Telecaster was born.
The base model Telecaster remains virtually unchanged some 70 years later. Sure, today there are literally dozens of models at any one time, and we’ll cover that later, but it is safe to say that with very little change, our look at the Fender Telecaster, from top to bottom, is very close to a good look at the original.
The delicate curves of the Telecaster headstock remain today as they have from the start. The headstock holds the tuning machines, whether vintage slotted or modern-day solid posts and the strings stop here. The company logo and model name appear here as well as the string trees, which pull the lighter strings down as they pass the end of the fingerboard, along with that hole burrowing into the neck, the truss rod access. On the back of the headstock is where you will find the serial number on nearly all models of Telecaster.
Smaller than the headstock of its cousin the Stratocaster, the Tele headstock is immediately recognizable, an enduring part of the history of the guitar while embodying the form-follows-function basis that all class-defining objects have in common.
The neck on the 25.5” scale Telecaster is the same today as the day it was born. You will notice dark-colored rosewood fingerboards and almost white maple fingerboards. It is true, there have been and are other woods used for the fingerboard, but we’ll confine our chat to these two. With some exceptions for short periods, the one-piece maple neck has been one-half of the standard, and the rosewood fingerboard on the maple neck has been the other half.
The radius, that is, the curvature across the face of the fingerboard is a standard 9.5” for modern Teles, 7.25” for vintage versions, and you will see 12” radius Tele necks on more and more models in recent years, with 22 frets no matter the radius. At the headstock end of the neck, where the strings stop vibrating you will find the nut, a synthetic bone material that hasn’t changed in decades.
The average profile of a Telecaster neck, that is the shape of the back of the neck, is a somewhat deep C shape with definite shoulders close to each edge of the neck. There are a variety of profiles across the many models, ranging from the original deep, thick U shape to the modern D. This is one of the most important reasons to try and get some play time on a prospective guitar as necks of two guitars of the same model can vary slightly.
And finally, the brown strip of wood down the center of the back of the neck, known as the “skunk stripe”. There is a channel in the one-piece neck that allows the installation of the truss rod, the steel rod that stops the strings from bending the neck. This channel is then filled with a strip of (typically) walnut. The thick, square heel will be at the neck’s body end, which receives the screws that hold it to the body.
The flat, single cut-away body of the Fender Telecaster is instantly recognized by even the non-guitar playing public, it is that much a part of popular music. At 15.5” long, 12.5” wide, and 1.75” thick, the flat slab of alder or ash is a timeless work of electric guitar art. Without the contours of the Stratocaster, the edges of the Tele add to the overall meatiness of this classic. The slightly pinched waist and symmetrical bottom create shapely, delightful curves that are both eye-catching and a joy to hold and play.
There are a variety of reasons for the use of each wood, suffice it to say that a finish that shows the grain of the wood is typically ash, while solid colors are usually alder. From a handful of bursts to the most current popular colors, the finish of the Telecaster is a very important consideration for all guitar players.
Mounted on the body is the pickguard, which protects the finish from the inevitable pick scrapes and holds the neck position pickup, the control plate that holds the potentiometers and switch, and the bridge which holds the bridge position pickup and the saddles. Around the back, you will find the neck plate for securing the neck to the body, and six string ferrules, which hold the ball ends of the strings as they are fed through the body and over the saddles on their way to the tuning machines.
Stringing up a Telecaster starts with passing them through the back as we’ve noted, through the holes in the bridge, over the saddles, and on their way to the tuning machines at the other end. In 1951 there really wasn’t anything else like what Leo Fender was doing with his new screwed-together solid-body guitars, and the bridge was miles away from anything else going on at the time.
The Telecaster bridge is a stamped steel plate with raised edges on three sides. Most models you will see in the store will have three barrel saddles, each shared by two strings. These saddles allow for easy string height and intonation adjustment, intonation being the proper tuning of a guitar the whole length of the neck, and we’ll get into some of that a bit later on. The Tele bridge also holds the bridge position pickup in place. At times over the decades, some models have sported a six-saddle bridge and some have lost the raised edges, but they remain the only functional change to this masterpiece in 70 years.
The Pots, Switch, and Jack
Along the bottom edge of the guitar, mounted on the control plate, are the three-way pickup switch, and a single volume and single tone potentiometer (pot) under each of the two control knobs. The location, function, and appearance of these three important parts have remained virtually unchanged in the 70-plus years of the Fender Telecaster. Everything you need and nothing you don’t leave no reason to change things.
The three-way switch provides control of the pickup output. Forward, or farthest from the knobs provides the neck position pickup, closest to the knobs provides the bridge position pickup, and the middle position provides both pickups. The knob closest to the switch controls the volume of both pickups, while the other knob controls the tone of each pickup by rolling off treble frequencies as the knob is turned down. Deceptively simple at first glance, the interaction of the switch positions and the two controls can provide a plethora of great sounds.
On the bottom edge of the Tele is the output jack, where all that great sound leaves the guitar through the cable and heads back to the amplifier. The cup and clip assembly has been the Telecaster jack since the first day and hasn’t changed a bit, just another example of Tele form following Tele function perfectly.
And finally, we get to the two pickups that generate all of those great sounds. Mounted just beneath the strings, the pickups convert the sound (vibration) of the strings into an electric signal which is then controlled by the pots and switch on the way out of the guitar to the amplifier, where that signal is turned back into sound. That is their primary function, along with causing as much controversy and consternation among guitar players as possible, as nothing incites a good internet Guitargument like the subject of pickups.
The traditional pickups found in the Telecaster are Fender single coils, meaning a single coil of wire wrapped around various types of magnet materials. While they have different characteristics, both pickups in a Tele share a clear, bright, classic clean sound, and a powerful, crunchy overdriven sound. They look a bit different from their Stratocaster cousins, and the single coils in each won’t migrate to the other without considerable work since their bases and mounting methods are somewhat different.
Like any single coil pickups, those found in the Telecaster can include a bit of noise in their signal, which is translated by the amplifier as a buzz. Computer screens, fluorescent lights, dimmer switches, and refrigerators are just some of the things that can introduce such noise into the signal of a pickup. Many guitar players embrace that noise and don’t mind it at all, others can not tolerate it, especially while recording, as once that noise is in, you can’t get it out.
Luckily there are pickups that cancel such noise, and they are called humbuckers. Humbuckers are basically two coils that are wired in a way that cancels the buzz and noise of a single coil. Humbuckers can be seen in several sizes and forms, and it is not at all uncommon for guitar players (and Fender) to have humbuckers in their Telecaster, a job requiring a minimum of work if any.
Let’s Get It Together
So, we’ve gone over all of the bits and bobs, parts and pieces of what makes this truly seminal piece of guitar history the classic that it is. With all of the parts put together, we can get to the important points of the Telecaster, like, what does it sound like?
Like no other, is a concise, short, right-to-the-point answer. Clear as an autumn sunrise, bright as summer noon, sparkly as an early evening fly cast on the Yellowstone River, and that’s just the gorgeous cleans a Telecaster is capable of. Was that too much¸ is my love for this guitar too loud? I hope not! A Telecaster into an overdriven amp at some rumble-inducing volumes is a thing of beauty all its own, so don’t think of it as just a clean machine.
The versatility of the Telecaster has made it a fixture in almost all styles and genres of music since 1951. Of course, everyone sees it in Country music, and it has gained a reputation as being particularly suited to that style. But the fact is it is a part of nearly all forms of Rock, an extremely competent jazz guitar, and every style and type of music in between. It is true that the Tele doesn’t really appear in the heavy stuff, and the shredders don’t really use them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t! You’ll have to look hard to find one with a tremolo bridge, or whammy bar, as Fender just hasn’t done that very often because, well, they make the entire Stratocaster for just such a need!
From Albert Lee to Danny Gatton to Roy Buchannan, from Bill Frisell to Vince Gill to Keith Richards and Jimmy Page, most types of modern music are all represented by just a handful of the long roster of musicians that have made their mark using the Fender Telecaster. True, Mr. Page has been photographed and associated most notably with another single cutaway guitar, but his Led Zeppelin career began with the Telecaster, as it was the guitar of choice for their entire first album, with great songs like Dazed and Confused, Communication Breakdown, and Good Times Bad Times as top hit examples of his command of the Tele.
What to Expect
Considering the history, sound, and versatility of the Fender Telecaster, you can expect quite a lot from your own. At an average weight of about 8 pounds, the Tele hangs well, moves with the player, and balances superbly. The substantial, solid feel of the flat top makes the Telecaster feel fantastic as a performance machine. It will do almost whatever you ask of it, do it well, and do it consistently and reliably for more nights than any of us can count.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to maintain an electric guitar. Regular cleaning, especially when changing strings, keeps most issues that could ever arise in check. The Telecaster arrives with Fender Original 150’s strings on it, usually gauged .009 – .042 and you will need just a few things to have it set up in no time:
- A variety of flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers
- .050” hex key for adjusting the saddles
- Set of flat feeler gauges
- An accurate flat-end ruler or guitar string action gauge
- A good tuner
This isn’t meant to minimize the care and feeding of a guitar, but to quickly cover the measurements that comprise a basic setup and to show that after a few string changes, most folks can become comfortable getting their guitar set up fairly well.
With the guitar tuned to standard E A D G B E tuning, a capo at the first fret, and the low E string pressed down at the last full fret, a .010” feeler gauge should slide under the 8th fret and just touch the bottom of the low E string. With the guitar tuned to standard tuning and no capo on it, the strings should measure 4/64th at the 17th fret. With the guitar tuned to standard tuning the tuner should show exactly the same note for an open string and that same string fretted at the 12th fret. A fretted note that is sharper, or higher, than the open string note needs to have the string lengthened, by moving the saddle towards the back of the guitar with the appropriate screwdriver, and the opposite direction for a 12th fret note that is flatter, or lower, than the open string note.
It’s Buying Time
We’ve got all the stuff that makes a Tele deconstructed, put back together, and made ready to function properly. Whether you are a beginner or have a few years of guitar playing behind you, a Telecaster is an excellent choice, but it can be overwhelming at both the big music store and the dozens of reputable online dealers.
A Telecaster can cost anywhere from $700 on sale for a great base model made in Mexico up to a few thousand dollars for the higher-end American-made guitars, and several price points between. Sure, there are other brands that look almost exactly like the Telecaster because any trademark, copyright, or other proprietary protections have long expired but be assured they are not Telecasters beyond first glance. You will also see Squier Telecasters, Fender’s imported budget line of guitars. They too are Telecasters because, well, Fender says they are. The differences are many, and range from subtle to significant, including the price, but we are here for the Fenders! Seriously, that’s yet another article.
The range of models is also a bit much for the new guitar player to digest. From the basic Telecaster to the two humbucker Deluxe, to the one humbucker one single coil Custom to the semi-hollow Thinline to the…you get the idea. There are quite a few models beyond the basic Tele. Add the often-released Factory Special Run (FSR) guitars, usually in exclusive custom colors and pickup combinations and you’ve got racks of Telecasters to choose from. Amongst all of the Teles on the wall will be an equally dizzying variety of Fender Stratocasters, causing the new buyer to wonder what the difference is.
Fortunately, the best and only way to determine which Telecaster model is for you is to play as many as you can. See how each feels, plug them in, and hear the differences, no matter how subtle. Get a strap off the rack and stand and play it, feel the balance and the hang, and get an idea of the weight, if that matters to you. Play it loud and clean, loud and dirty, soft and smooth. Move the switch around, roll those two control knobs up and down, and get an idea of the wide range of tones that live inside the average Tele. If possible, have a more experienced guitar player friend go with you, they can help wade through the sea of choices and help with head-to-head comparisons to help narrow down your choices.
Final Thoughts on The Telecaster
Well, you made it this far, and that was a long walk. If you came here for some clarity about a truly important piece of guitar history you have hopefully gained some knowledge and insight and will be able to shirk some of the common myths and opinions that often masquerade as fact. There are many, many great reasons the Fender Telecaster has succeeded for so many guitar players for so long, and now it is up to you to get out there and try one. Or three or four. So, what are you waiting for? Only you can know which one is right for you, and the best thing you can do is enjoy the hunt, make an informed decision, and above all, have fun finding the Fender Telecaster for you!
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is the Telecaster so special?
Two words: It Works. The base model of Telecaster has not changed in over 70 years. It remains one of the most loved guitars ever and continues to be used by huge numbers of guitar players for recording and touring. It is special because it was done once and done right that one time and we are still enjoying it as it was designed, for what it is. There isn’t quite anything else like the sound and feel of a great Fender Telecaster.
What are Telecasters good for?
Everything and anything. I take two guitars to a gig, mostly because of the odd string break, it helps to just pick up the other one and go. If we have some Pop, a Country or two, and then some Metallica, I don’t put down the Tele and pick up something else. With some minor pedal tweaks and amp knob twisting, a Telecaster will do it all and do it all well and be a ball to use while doing it all!
What is the difference between a Stratocaster and a Telecaster?
The short answer is the obvious shape, curves, and contours found on the Strat, three pickups and more switching options on the Strat, the tremolo bridge on the Stratocaster, and the necks can be somewhat different between the two.
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